I’ve wrapped up Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist.
It’s a collection of essays about the interests and events in the life of the author. I decided to read this after reading a review along the lines of “if you loved Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude” – I did – “you’ve GOT to get you some o’ this”. Maybe it was a little more literate than that.
The take home message of the positive reviews of this book was that these are autobiographical stories that would expand your appreciation of Lethem’s Brooklyn books. So I was on board. And I was disappointed. At least I feel a connection with the title of the book. That’s the easiest and cheapest review of this book. I’ll try to expand on that.
Here’s what I didn’t like. A lot of the writing was about stuff that I love: books and music. I didn’t feel the enthusiasm on Lethem’s part. There are descriptions of the Brooklyn neighborhood where Lethem grew up that are earnest and heartfelt, yet they don’t measure up to the same neighborhood as described in Fortress. There is a passionate essay about the films of John Cassavetes and about a John Wayne movie, The Searchers, that did nothing for me. He writes about music that transported him as a teen, and you don’t really care either way. This is Jonathan Lethem, one of my favorite writers. What the f*ck is going on? Well, try this sample sentence on for size:
This is a closed circuit, me and the comics which I read and which read me, and the reading of which by one another, me and the comics, I am now attempting to read, or reread.
I couldn’t understand that sentence until I drew a figure on the blackboard. That sentence made me want to fight. It may be the most pretentious thing you read all year. At least I hope so. The very next sentence in that essay should be on the front cover as a subtitle: “The fact is I’m dealing with a realm of masturbation, of personal arcana.” That’s it. I think Lethem felt that he was getting into the realm of arcana – writing about things that no one else would really care about – but he’d put it out there anyway. As if it were an obligation. I honestly believe that almost any one of these essays could be one of the greatest conversations you’ve ever had if you met Lethem by chance in a bar in Brooklyn, bought him a few rounds, and let him tell you his stories — and he knew that you cared. It just doesn’t read that way though. And it gives me no joy to crap all over it.
Also: I felt like a jerk riding on the bus with that cover. Vaguely pornographic? Maybe that’s why they couldn’t put the masturbation blurb on the cover.